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  • Writer's pictureBenjamin Kassel

Close to a decade on, "Caliban's Dream" continues to embody the Olympic spirit

As Beijing 2022 begins, I return to Underworld's musical setting for the 2012 cauldron lighting.

The main event in the world today was the opening ceremony of the Winter Olympics. Yes, the Games are being held in a climate thick with doubt, between the continuing pandemic and China's human rights record, but I'm not here to focus on that context today. For all the sociopolitical discussion that occurs every (usually) two years, the Olympics are first and foremost about the athletes, and the collective competitive spirit of the 2,871 participating athletes will be a beacon of hope unto the world.

Over the years, various music has been composed for, about, or in tribute to the Olympics. These pieces are often symphonic — take, for instance, John Williams' "Olympic Fanfare and Theme," which has become inextricably linked to the event since its debut in 1984 in Los Angeles — but some lean more toward popular forms or at least feature popular performers. For Barcelona 1992, Spanish tenor José Carreras and English soprano Sarah Brightman teamed up on the Andrew Lloyd Webber-penned "Amigos Para Siempre," a slice of operatic pop with some dubious Spanish flair; sixteen years later, Brightman collaborated with Chinese popstar Liu Huan on the Beijing 2008 theme, "You and Me."

The song I'm talking about today wasn't an official Olympic theme song, but it was composed for and performed at the opening ceremony of the 2012 Summer Olympics in London, a ceremony which remains my personal favorite. English electronic duo Underworld were tasked with writing a poetic piece to complement Danny Boyle's ceremony, and they more than delivered with "Caliban's Dream." With contributions from two choirs, percussionist Dame Evelyn Glennie, soprano Elizabeth Roberts, and lyrics sung by Two Door Cinema Club's Alex Trimble evoking the world uniting in the spirit of athletic competition, the serene piece proved a perfect backdrop to the final legs of the Olympic flame relay.

"Caliban's Dream" synthesizes multiple elements of the opening ceremony, themed "Isles of Wonder," and it is in this larger context that it gains even greater poignancy. As Glennie provides backing on a bell-like instrument of her design called the "aluphone", the initial melody emerges, first being sung, then whistled, then both. The theme which was first heard in the track "And I Will Kiss" during the awe-inspiring "Pandemonium" section of the program, which depicted the industrial transformation of the United Kingdom. In "And I Will Kiss," the melody was the lead line in reflective sections void of percussion; hearing it again in "Caliban's Dream" causes a similar reflection on the ceremony's events, but the percussion behind it presents a newfound energy coloring the scene as the focus shifts from the UK's past to its future in the form of the young athletes selected to light the "affirming flame" of the Olympic cauldron.

The title recalls the first scene following the introduction, in which Sir Kenneth Branagh, playing 19th-century industrialist and engineer Isambard Kingdom Brunel, recites Caliban's famous "Be not afeard" speech from Act 3, Scene 2 of Shakespeare's The Tempest. Underworld's song doesn't directly reference the speech, but I hear Caliban's vision of the clouds opening and riches dropping upon him as an extended metaphor for the world descending upon London to enrich the city through their patronage to or participation in the Games. Alex Trimble echoes this international convergence in his second verse, singing, "And the nations come to greet us / Waving open arms like waves of golden corn." I love that something as simple and natural as corn was the image of choice, because its commonality and quantity across the world echoes that of the billions who take in the Olympic spectacle, whether at the stadiums or from their own countries. Even if they remain far away from the spectacle, the nations come to greet the host country through welcoming the Olympics into their homes.

As awe-inspiring as the whole piece and its setting is, its ending always leaves the greatest impression on me. The synthesizer line returns from the later sections of pandemonium as the drum beat disappears, giving way to a freer section. This is the moment in the ceremony where the Olympic cauldron is finally revealed, its design another symbol of world unity. The five tolls of a bell never fail to give me chills, while the final soprano melody from Elizabeth Roberts lifts the piece from its earthly moorings, rising into the heavens like the flames of the cauldron that was finally taking shape and burning bright. It's a finale that still gives me chills an occasionally moves me to tears nearly a decade on.

At the beginning of another Olympic Games, I return to "Caliban's Dream" because of my love for its setting and its combination of programmatic importance to the opening ceremony with sensibilities of popular music in its producers and lead singer. The end result is a timeless piece that I hear as being able to soundtrack the unifying purpose of the event for years to come. Best of luck to all athletes participating in Beijing this year. Citius, Altius, Fortius.


Given my repeated referencing during the article, it's only fitting that I leave you today with the video of "Caliban's Dream" as it was used in the London 2012 opening ceremony. I hope you enjoy it as much as I always have. (Because of IOC copyright restrictions, it must be watched on YouTube and not embedded here.)


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